How to inspire a child's creativity

At the beginning of every school year, when I would stand in front of my new art class facing my elementary-aged students, one child always raised their hand and said, "Just so you know, Ms. Katz, I'm not good at art."

Here's why kids often believe that to be true:

  • Their previous teacher expected them to complete art projects that looked exactly like everyone else's. And they couldn't do it. So they thought they weren't good at art.
  • The only art supplies they had at home were crayons. Holding those tiny sticks was challenging and they couldn't make the lines they wanted. So they thought they weren't good at art.
  • They spent hours drawing spaceships and horses and flowers and all the members of their family on top of a rainbow. And then an adult said, "What is that?" If a grownup couldn't figure it out, that must mean they weren't good at art.
  • Every time their parent sat down to draw with them, the parent announced, "I'm really bad at art." And so, genetically speaking, that must mean they were bad at art, too. 

I was an art teacher for nearly a decade. I speak with certainty when I say that every child is an artist. But something is happening to make them believe they aren't. 

A recent NYT article, "How to Raise a Creative Child", said the best thing you can do is back off. And while that is true in part, let's be honest: It's very hard to back off. In fact, it feels counter-intuitive within progressive parenting. We want to ask our children what they are drawing because it's a way of engaging with them. We want to help them finish their art projects so they feel successful. 

For many well-intentioned parents, "doing art at home" means downloading instructions for DIY snowmen from Pinterest and telling our children to follow the steps. And if they can't, we do it for them. Then we hang it on the wall and say, "Look what you did!" (Even though they didn't).

I was at a library event with my toddler and the kids were given kits to design their own flower garden with stickers. I opened the packet, spread out the pieces on the table and said to my daughter, "Have at it." A few minutes later I looked at the little girl sitting next to us and saw she had lost interest in the project. Her mother however was hard at work, reading the instructions line by line to make sure she put all the flowers in the right place. I don't fault her for this. But I heard my art teacher voice come out as I reassured her, "Don't worry, there isn't just one way to do this." But she believed there was. And she was going to make sure her daughter's garden was done right. 

The academic term for this is product-focused art. Many of us have only had that type of art experience so we naturally pass that on to our children. The emphasis is put on what the art will look like completed. A child's art experience is reduced to a simple evaluation system: It's either finished and on the wall, or it's not. It either looks like what they were expected to make, or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, then they either don't know how to follow instructions, or they're just not that good at art. 

but what happens when we switch THE FOCUS FROM PRODUCT TO PROCESS?

At first it may feel daunting to remove the "finished product" incentive. But there are many fun ways to help a child (and yourself!) enjoy the artistic process.

Exploration and experimentation. 

Exploration and experimentation. 

Vary the materials

  • Instead of using one paintbrush that came with an art kit, put out brushes of all different sizes.
  • Try alternative line-making tools, such as sponges or q-tips.
  • Offer colors that aren't typical, like florescents and intense black.
  • Bring materials out one at a time. This gives the child a chance to focus on one tool, and then revives their curiosity when a new option appears. 

Vary the size and the surface

Drawing on the windows with washable markers (at the Westchester Children's Museum)

Drawing on the windows with washable markers (at the Westchester Children's Museum)

  • Use surfaces with different textures, such as thick cardboard, thin tracing paper, or scratchy wood.
  • Forgo margins: Paint vertically on windows, or finger paint directly on a table.
  • Try tiny post-it notes and then large mural paper that everyone draws on together.
  • Use nature as a resource. Paint on leaves or with branches.

Up the quality

Child-friendly art materials can be pretty weak. Often times the paper doesn't absorb water well, or the paint is so thin that it barely has any saturation. This defeats the purpose of having a child explore color. I suggest buying better stuff. It doesn't have to be expensive to be good, but it does have to be good to be worth it. Such as:

My 2-year old got more experimental with her art when the supplies I gave her could handle it.  

My 2-year old got more experimental with her art when the supplies I gave her could handle it.  

Spark a conversation

Instead of: "What did you draw?", try: "Can you tell me about your drawing?"

Instead of: "This is what we're going to make", suggest: "Let's see what happens when we try this."

A child being led through product-focused art will likely say, "I'm done" when they see the art is finished (or when they're told by an adult that they're finished). But a child engaged in process-driven art will often ask, "Can I do another one?"  

Don't make predictions

You should not know what is going to happen when a child starts to create. The element of surprise is a good thing. Setting parameters that help a child reach certain learning goals is great (such as color theory or conceptual themes) but ultimately the child is the artist. Unexpected outcomes are a sign that real exploration occurred. 

As a professional artist, I'm happy to admit that for every drawing I share with the world, there are pages of sketches that I don't. The reason I can draw someone's portrait is not simply because I'm "good at art." Of course natural talent helps. But talent is worthless without practice.

Everyday I challenge myself as an artist. I experiment and make decisions and erase and redraw and observe and push through. The end product is a result of my process. My commitment to the process is what makes me an artist.